Kentucky Mudworks has succeeded by thinking outside the wheel

April 22, 2013


Link Henderson of Kentucky Mudworks makes one of the ceramic pint glasses that will be part of her fundraiser for Seedleaf on April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. A $15 donation to the community garden group will come with a beer in one of her handmade pint glasses. Photo by Tom Eblen 


Link Henderson moved here after college in 1997 because her best friend got married, got a teaching job in Lexington and bought a duplex where Henderson could rent the other half.

“I always wanted to own my own business, ever since I was a kid,” said Henderson, who grew up in North Carolina and majored in Latin and ceramics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “I just didn’t know what it was or how it would happen.”

After working as a waitress and baker, Henderson got a job teaching ceramics classes at the city-owned Loudoun House.

When it was closed for a major renovation, she rented studio space in an old carriage house downtown, offered her own classes and made pottery to sell.

As the business grew, she moved to larger quarters on Jefferson Street. One thing led to another, and Kentucky Mudworks LLC is now a full-service ceramics studio, school and store at 825 National Avenue.

130416KyMudworks0085The company will have one of its two annual charity fundraisers April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. Called Pints for Plants, the event benefits Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that works to provide affordable, nutritious food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky.

Henderson is hand-making more than 300 ceramic pint glasses. Donors get a pint of beer in a glass for a $15 donation to Seedleaf, from 3 p.m. until they are all gone.

Henderson said Kentucky Mudworks’ success has been all about diversification.

“Knowing my market and being willing to have a toe in every facet of the business,” she said.

When Henderson began making pottery and teaching classes, she was frustrated that there was no good place in the region to buy clay. There are fewer than a dozen ceramic clay manufacturers in the country, and mail order is expensive.

“A box of clay is only $30, but it costs $20 to ship it,” she said. “So, if you have a local supplier, it’s a really great thing.”

Henderson started selling clay to potters, schools and universities. Kentucky Mudworks now stocks 80 kinds of clay in its 11,000-square-foot facility, along with kilns, wheels and a full range of pottery materials and supplies.

130416KyMudworks0049When online retailers started taking a bite out of her margins several years ago, Henderson created her own line of tools.

“Instead of trying to compete with 30 or 50 online stores, I wanted to have products in those stores,” she said.

Dirty Girls Pottery Tools now has about 40 distributors in the United States and Canada. Henderson also sells them at her shop and website:

Henderson and her five employees make commissioned pottery, such as trophies and awards. They also offer ceramics classes for adults and children. Kentucky Mudworks recently partnered with Zig Zeigler, a stained-glass artist whose studio is down the street, to offer stained glass classes.

The hardest thing about building the business was financing.

“In the beginning, it was credit cards, which is an absolute no-no,” Henderson said. “But I was 25 and had no collateral.”

As the business grew, she was able to get a conventional loan, which she plans to pay off in September. Henderson owns 90 percent of the business. Eight percent is owned by a friend and investor, and a longtime employee owns 2 percent.

But, for many years, much of Henderson’s capital came from living simply and plowing most of her earnings back into the business.

“I probably lived on 700 bucks a month for I don’t know how long, literally living above the shop,” she said. “Ramen noodles: that’s how I financed my business!

“I didn’t have a family or a mortgage,” added Henderson, 38, who now lives on a farm near Lawrenceburg. “I started when I was so young because I figured if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it if I have something to lose.”

In addition to constant financial discipline, Henderson said she does a business plan every five years to stay on track.

Kentucky Mudworks has been a lot of work, but it has been worth it, she said.

“I wish more young people would start businesses,” Henderson said. “I was very, very lucky. I found a niche, a hole in the market that I was able to capitalize on.

“But it takes so much more than you think.”

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‘Clear as Mud’ seeks to clarify KY pottery history

July 4, 2010

Kentucky pottery has been popular with collectors for nearly a century, but its history has often been shrouded in mystery, ignorance and confusion.

A new book tries to sort out some of that confusion and explain the evolution of Kentucky porcelain, pottery and stoneware. But its title — Clear as Mud — acknowledges the difficult task.

This handsomely printed book is the work of Louisville art dealers Warren and Julie Payne, who specialize in Kentucky art. He edited and wrote some of it; she was responsible for the book’s excellent photography and design. Seven collectors from Kentucky and Ohio — Riley Humler, Larry G. Hackley, Jerry Nichols, Stephen J. Lee, Mike Slaven, and Nick and Marilyn Nicholson — contributed chapters.

The book is a resource for identifying pieces, and it has a source list of other books and magazine articles at the end. There are guides to identifying potters’ marks — and the work of potteries that left no mark.

Clear as Mud tells the history of several significant Kentucky potters and potteries. It also tries to put the artistic trends and influences of Kentucky potters in regional context, noting the influence of Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery Co., North Carolina mountain potters and the then-emerging tourist trade across the South.

The book explores the work of the Cornelison family, which claims a two-century legacy of pottery-making in Madison County, and it dissects disputes over the Bybee name by the Cornelisons and other potteries. Profiled artists and companies include Jonathan Browne Hunt, Kenton Hills Porcelains, Louisville Pottery Co., Hadley Pottery Co., Lexington Pottery Co. and Waco Pottery.

There is a section on “pinch” pots, and even one on unusual customer gift items produced by industrial potteries such as Owensboro Sewer Pipe Co.

Most Kentucky potters didn’t start out as artists. Their jobs were to make utilitarian objects, including crocks, urns, roof tiles and drain pipe. That often led to dishes and vases, colorful glazes, rich designs, elegant shapes and artistic style.

Payne acknowledges upfront that what distinguishes art pottery from plain pottery is debatable. He likens it to hate-crime legislation: It’s all about the mind-set of the perpetrator. Or pornography: A collector knows it when he sees it.

Whether you are a collector or just curious about those colorful pots that you have seen sitting around all your life, Clear as Mud is a quick, interesting read that just might clear up some confusion about one of Kentucky’s proud artistic traditions.

Bybee Pottery marks 200 years, one family

February 21, 2009

BYBEE — You can buy more elegant dishes, more perfectly shaped dishes and certainly more expensive dishes. But only here can you buy stoneware that has been made by the same family in the same log shed and in about the same way since 1809.

Bybee Pottery is the last of perhaps 50 small potteries that sprang up during Kentucky’s pioneer days near the rich clay deposits of southern Madison County. Yet, as the Cornelison family celebrates its business’s bicentennial, family members fight persistent rumors that it is closing — and they wonder how much longer it can survive.

“All my life, there has been the annual going-out-of-business rumor,” said Buzz Cornelison, 60, who with his brother and sister represent the sixth or seventh generation to run the business, depending on who’s counting. “All my life, we have laughed about it. But in the last few years it has become more acute.”

Bybee Pottery faced its first big threat during the Civil War, when Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s raiders burned many potteries in the area because of their owners’ Union sympathies. Cornelison family legend has it that Bybee was spared because it employed an immigrant potter known for his outspoken support of the South.

In the early 1900s, as demand for utilitarian crocks and churns diminished, most of the remaining potteries went under. But the Cornelisons adapted, shifting their production to tableware glazed with bright, custom-made colors that are now a company trademark.

Most Cornelisons over the years weren’t potters; they hired potters. That was until Buzz’s father, Walter Lee Cornelison, took over the business and spent decades at the wheel, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.

“My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his own clay,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.”

Business got a boost when Phyllis George, a sportscaster and former Miss America from Texas who married John Y. Brown Jr., became Kentucky’s first lady in 1979. She made the international promotion of Kentucky crafts her personal mission. She even persuaded Bloomingdale’s department store in New York to set up a boutique to sell them.

Bybee was a big beneficiary of her efforts. For the next two decades, people would line up outside Bybee’s rustic workshop off Ky. 52 at 8 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, waiting for a new batch to be pulled from the big kiln.

Business has slowed with the economy, and Kentucky crafts aren’t as popular as they once were. Perhaps Bybee Pottery’s biggest blow came in November 2007, when Walter Cornelison suffered a stroke. Although he recovered, Cornelison, who turned 80 this month, can no longer make pottery that meets his exacting standards.

Now the wheel is manned by Buzz Cornelison’s brother, Jim, who also works as Madison County’s coroner; and by Harvey Conner, who started working here 44 years ago when he graduated from high school. The Cornelisons’ sister, Paula Gabbard, and two longtime employees, Brenda Cole and Rick Hall, help with other chores.

“We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”

A Cornelison cousin, Ron Stambaugh, owns Little Bit of Bybee, which sells the pottery and some of his own pieces at a shop in the Louisville suburb of Middletown.

Without Walter Cornelison’s prolific work, the shop has cut back from three kiln-loads a week to two. On a recent Wednesday, the Cornelison brothers and Conner finished the hourlong process of unloading the kiln as the sun rose and the bells of Bybee United Methodist Church chimed 8 o’clock. The shop door was unlocked, but nobody was waiting outside.

Still, business isn’t bad. A handful of customers wanders in each day from all over the country to see the pottery being made and to stock up on colorful pitchers, pie plates, mugs and bowls.

“I have a cousin who put me on to Bybee Pottery; she has a whole kitchen full of it,” said Paula Dodd of Crane Hill, Ala., who stopped by while driving through Kentucky with her husband, Ed. The Dodds bought two big boxes full of pieces for their 36-year-old twin daughters. “The whole family has a lot of this stuff,” he said.

Visitors walk through the shop, past the kiln and groaning shelves of cups and bowls waiting to be fired, until they get back to the log workshop, where Conner is at the wheel. Everything is covered with a thick layer of yellow clay dust, including the floor, which has gained a few inches over the past two centuries. Tall people must frequently duck to avoid hitting the log beams that hold up the ceiling.

Conner, a skilled potter, seems to enjoy explaining the process as much as doing it. “I’d like to have a dime for every piece I’ve made since I’ve been here,” he tells a visiting couple from Louisville. “I’d retire.”

An electric motor turns the potter’s wheel, and the kiln is fired by natural gas. Clay is dug from a nearby farm with a bulldozer and backhoe. After removal of the 100 tons of clay that the pottery will use in a year, the hole is filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.

Otherwise, Bybee Pottery’s methods have changed little.

Fresh clay is run through a pug mill, which is like a big sausage grinder, to remove any pebbles or impurities. It is then formed into “logs” and stacked in burlap in a stone cellar. The only thing ever added to the clay is a little water.

After each piece is formed on the potter’s wheel, it is dried, painted with colorful glaze and fired for 16 hours in the kiln, which reaches 2,200 degrees. After cooling for 24 hours, pieces are unloaded from the kiln onto the shop’s shelves. Prices here are lower than at other Kentucky shops that sell Bybee Pottery.

Buzz Cornelison doesn’t know what the future holds for his family’s business. “There is no next generation for us to take over, unless things change,” he said.

But then, Cornelison wouldn’t necessarily have seen himself here a few years ago. An accomplished musician, he was a keyboard player with the local rock band Exile, which scored a No. 1 hit in 1978 with Kiss You All Over.

After 18 years on the road with Exile, he returned to the pottery shop where he had worked as a boy, and in his spare time, he earned a master’s degree in English literature from nearby Eastern Kentucky University. He remains active in local theater.

“There is a next gener ation,” Cornelison said. “One’s a lawyer in Chicago, and she’s not about to come back. And the other two are girls who are in high school now. They haven’t focused on what they’re going to do, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest from them (in running the pottery). And I don’t blame them.”

But don’t say bye-bye to Bybee Pottery just yet. The Cornelisons beat the normal odds of family business survival several generations ago. Their little shop seems to have luck — or at least inertia — on its side.

“As it stands right now, at this point in time, we have no plans to close,” Buzz Cornelison said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”